Wool-sourced pigments created

Wool Source chief executive Tom Hooper is confident wool-sourced pigments are a big commercial...
Wool Source chief executive Tom Hooper is confident wool-sourced pigments are a big commercial opportunity once the barriers to getting it to market are overcome. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
Wool researchers are getting closer to commercialising new pigments after making a technical breakthrough.

The wool-sourced pigments are the result of Lincoln University-based Wool Research Organisation of New Zealand and its subsidiary Wool Source looking for new markets for wool in non-traditional areas.

Pigments are a way of applying colour to a wide range of materials. They rely on a small particle to absorb dye and are then applied as a covering layer such as inks and coatings.

Unlike almost all of the available options today sourced from synthetic compounds, the pigments made from strong wool are biodegradable and renewable.

Commercialisation of the product is being driven by Wool Source.

Wool Source chief executive Tom Hooper said pigments were big business internationally and the development of a wool-sourced alternative had generated much interest.

"We have recently had a technical breakthrough that opened up some major parts of that sector and means there’s a fairly significant commercial opportunity in the middle of it."

About three years ago Wool Source went to the world’s pigment manufacturing corporations to test the market.

A product development agreement was signed with one of them which required the subsidiary to shrink its particle size by a factor of 10 and more than double the colour intensity.

These challenging requests were recently met by the research team and Wool Source believed it now had a commercially viable product.

"When they asked us to radically improve our colour intensity to the point it matched synthetics we didn’t think that was possible. Globally, we are unaware of anyone else being able to do that either. The synthetic particles are designed to absorb dye and they do a wonderful job at it, but they just don’t break down and we have a much better environmental and sustainability profile. ... About a month ago it all coalesced together and we achieved the perfect result of smaller particle and matching colour intensity which is significant and we think a world-first for bio-based material. We are now at the same dye loading as synthetic compounds and therefore at the same intensity."

Product and process patents are being lodged.

Mr Hooper said it would be "broadly impossible" for competitors to repeat the process without infringing the patent and they had a strong IP position.

The discovery element of the innovation was now complete as they knew they could repeat the results.

"We are now looking at how we take it into commercial scale. To get to a commercial product launch stage there are now a whole series of steps we have to run through around colour range, proof of how we inject it into somebody else’s manufacturing process and quality control steps we have to work through. So there’s a myriad of steps we have to go through as fast as we can to get a development partner to adopt it."

Mr Hooper said they were likely to build a manufacturing facility in New Zealand in the near future to capture as much of the value-add as possible for wool farmers.

He said end users were interested in the chemical and molecular composition of the product and how it behaved during manufacturing, but were not driven by the pigment being made from wool.

More important to them was that it was bio-based, renewable and sustainable.

Brands were demanding this and anything reducing their environmental impact was a major plus.

"And 99.5% of the world’s carrier particles are synthetic compounds so they are petro-chemical compounds designed to hold dye, but they are not bio-based and they do not biodegrade and their environmental profile is not fantastic. One of the key points of difference for our product is that carrier particle is 100% bio-based and made of wool so it breaks down ultimately and that means we have a much, much better environmental profile than the existing products in the industry."

Wool has never been used in this field before.

Mr Hooper said they had a good relationship with the company signing the product development agreement and there was an ability to turn this into a "significant scale" opportunity once the steps were completed and patents were in place.

"We will also look at what the other market opportunities in that space are as well rather than betting the farm on one horse and will probably look at some other options too."

The company was excited about the progress, he said.

"We are confident there’s a commercial opportunity and we have a product that can meet that opportunity. As anybody that’s been engaged in this knows the devil is in the detail around the next thousand steps we have to go through to get this across the line. But the discovery and research piece is completed and proven and the market engagement piece finding there is demand for this is completed and proven as well. So those big rocks are done and now it’s all those little things you have to do to take a product to market."

Until now they had mostly gone under the radar to avoid making promises which were not delivered. To create a new sector of demand for wool and help fix some of the price challenges would be wonderful, and was the ultimate aim, but it would take time, and they were going as fast as they could, he said.